We all know the story: A rush of to-dos, crammed in right before December 31. In most cases, it can’t be helped. Financial deadlines colliding with project completion promises mount in Q4, and most of the time, we just have to power our way through.
If you’re anything like me, however, your mind is frenzied with everything at once. Get this done, so that I can get that thing done, so I can get this thing to that person to ensure this deadline is hit and the client is happy, etc.
It was in this spirit of chaos that I stumbled across Eckhart Tolle recently. Whatever you may think of Tolle’s spiritual guidance, there is one principle that does stress-relieving wonders — and fast.
It’s actually so simple it’s hard to believe it can be effective. But it is.
In short: Focus on the now.
There are two ways to do this that make deadline season manageable.
First, control in-the-moment stress that’s spiraling out of control by removing yourself from your workspace and engaging in a focus exercise. The process is simple. Find one thing to focus on for a solid minute — a sound, a picture, a sensation. I like to look at a single figure in a painting, of which there are many near my desk.
Intently focus on that one thing and avoid the urge to let your mind wander. Consider its various aspects, colors, shapes.
This does a few things. First, it slowly quiets the noise in your head, lowering your heart rate and calming you down. Second, it trains your mind to do what minds don’t do very well at all: Spend energy on what’s in front of you. We’re always thinking about the next thing, but if you can zero in on one thing in the present, your focus will improve and you’ll be less distracted by what comes next.
After you complete a minute of focused concentration, return to your work, but repeat the same practice. Zero in on the project/task at hand and don’t let your mind wander to other maybes and what if’s. As needed remind yourself of the singular goal you have in front of you.
Second, as a general rule, keep your daily focus on the list of tasks you’ve curated for that day. Don’t give in to the temptation to look at future deadlines or to-dos. At the end of every day, you can assemble the next day’s tasks (as your final activity before “clocking out”). When you get to your desk the next morning, review the day’s activities and focus only on those.
If new tasks come in, create a task “dump” where you store yet-to-be sorted to-dos. If some of them are urgent, slot them in your task list for that day and move another task to the dump.
At the end of the day, review your dump and set up the next day’s task list. There may be some tasks still in the dump — and that’s fine. As long as you’re reviewing these at the end of every day, they won’t fall through the cracks.
Also, as a final suggestion: Be sure you engage in the initial focus exercise as many times as you need to throughout the day. When you start, you may find that you have to do it quite often. You’re retraining your mind, after all. Over time, however, focus will become easier and stress far more manageable.